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April 1, 2007

Getting tough on violent crime ... victims

This story from Vermont provides an interesting example of how federal sentencing mandates can lead to some unexpected responses to violent crime:

When the gunfire ended, one young man lay bleeding near a Burlington intersection and another retreated to his nearby apartment, dropped a pistol to the floor and phoned a lawyer for help. Now, more than two years after a botched, late-night drug robbery spilled into the street and rattled a tranquil neighborhood, one of the men is preparing to report to prison to serve a five-year sentence while the other is about to be released after a three-month stretch.

The sentences of the man about to be incarcerated and the man set to be freed might not be what the casual observer would suspect. The longer sentence went to the shooting victim. Michael Ryan Manovill, 22, of Hydeville was sentenced late last month on federal charges of carrying a firearm during a drug deal.  The man who pulled the trigger, Paul Farrar, 23, of Essex was sentenced in January in state court to a three-month minimum on an assault charge. Farrar is scheduled to be released from prison today.

The incident highlights a disparity in sentencing structures, judicial flexibility and the severity of punishment in the Vermont and the federal court systems.  Federal law prescribes sentencing guidelines and rigid mandatory minimums, especially for drug-and-gun offenses.  Such strict legal controls do not govern state courts.

Manovill and Farrar brought similar stories to their sentencing hearings: former stand-out high school athletes, upstanding young men who made one critical mistake, little criminal history, a deepening involvement in the drug trade before the shooting, substantial rehabilitation afterward. In Farrar's case, a state judge was able to take that tale into account in crafting a sentence. In Manovill's case in the federal system, his story added up to little more than an interesting anecdote.

All those involved in the case -- police, prosecutors, defense lawyers, family members of the suspects, neighborhood residents -- agree something is amiss when a shooting victim is embarking on a prison term 20 times longer than the shooter's sentence....

April 1, 2007 at 09:13 AM | Permalink


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The issue, of course, is one of risk allocation. Yes, a five-year sentence seems harsh in this instance, but allowing judges to ease up in many cases has unfortunate consequences for society at large, namely overly lenient sentences which wind getting people killed.

We don't want armed people conducting drug transactions. It's that simple. And the question is do we want federal judges with a soft spot for criminals letting people out with little or no time for this crime. I think the answer to that is no.

The point is that if we adjust the system to account for the obvious issues with this particular outcome, there will be some consequences that fall not on people who engage in drug transaction while armed, but on law-abiding people.

Posted by: federalist | Apr 1, 2007 1:41:44 PM

Kinda defensive, aren't we?

Posted by: Anon | Apr 1, 2007 5:50:31 PM

The whole thing sounds a little less unreasonable when you read that Manovill, the man who was shot, brought the gun to the scene and intended to use it to rob Farrar, the shooter. So Manovill planned to commit a crime against Farrar, while Farrar acted in the heat of the moment, driven by his anger at being robbed.

I would argue that Manovill's conduct was worse than Farrar's, though not by enough to justify the difference between 5 years and 3 months.

Posted by: William Jockusch | Apr 1, 2007 5:58:28 PM

No Anon, I don't think I'm being defensive--I'm just pointing out that a criminal justice system must necessarily deal with numerous miscreants, and that adjustments to prevent certain perceived injustices may create worse problems than they solve.

Posted by: federalist | Apr 1, 2007 6:07:33 PM

The problem, obviously, is the mandatory nature of the five year sentence.

Posted by: Anon | Apr 2, 2007 1:05:29 PM

Three months for shooting someone does sound remarkably low. Apparently, this is a very good deal driven based on the notion that the self-defense case was strong.

Posted by: ohwilleke | Apr 2, 2007 2:08:32 PM

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